Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

04 October 2015


A sicario is an assassin, a title card tells us at the beginning of Denis Villeneuve's new movie starring Emily Blunt.

Sicario begins with a raid on a house in Arizona that ostensibly is holding hostages – actually, we don't know anything about what's going on. We know that Emily Blunt and her partner Daniel Kaluuya are the people we are supposed to like, and we know that people are shooting at them. We also know that Blunt's character Kate is a badass: she wastes an assassin without any trouble at all, dodging his shotgun blast and blowing him away with a machine gun. In the house that they and their team raid we find upwards of 40 corpses, hidden in the walls. There is also a huge explosion that manages to kill a couple of local cops.

From here we stay in the dark.

In other words, from the movie's opening sequence we don't really know what's going on. Kate is brought along on a mission to El Paso led by a winking, glib Josh Brolin and accompanied by a taciturn Benicio Del Toro. But what we are doing and why we are doing it is never clear. The movie traffics in this kind of mystery. The movie is, in fact, almost totally made up of setpieces in the sense that nothing that's happening is ever linked to a larger storyline. We are in a single action sequence and we follow that action sequence, but Sicario's game is keeping us uninvested in characters, in why the action is happening, and in what this action is supposed to accomplish.

It's an odd way to go about making a movie that is "serious" about drugs in America or crime in America or the real-world problems that attend dealing with crime that is both "Mexican" crime and "U.S. crime". There is no analysis of the problem, no expository information given to us so that we can try to puzzle it out or think through different possibilities for dealing with the problem: we simply follow Brolin and Del Toro along as they do "what needs to be done".

From the opening.
I found this frustrating in the extreme – not least because this means that Emily Blunt is given almost nothing to do except look confused as she tries to do what she knows how to do even though she has no idea what the rules are. The rules, you will remember, have been deliberately hidden from both her and us.

The other reason this is frustrating is that the film is fundamentally invested in violence as the solution to all problems that it presents us. Sicario enjoys violence, enjoys, in fact, staging torture for the audience's enjoyment. Further, Sicario doesn't object in any way to this torture. This is "what needs to be done". Of course, the audience has no way to know if this is true or not because the audience is never being given the full story about anything: We're not going to tell you what's going on, but hey here's a scene where we are going to torture a guy that we're telling you is a bad guy. Enjoy yourself!

And we do! The torture scenes are the most enjoyable part. And when the sicario of the film's title appears and begins to assassinate everyone in his path, we're there to enjoy these scenes and feel the thrill of having killed a bunch of people. Why? Who cares. Is it just for revenge? Sounds good.

Jeffrey Donovan in Sicario
All of this is fine, to be sure... if we're in a James Bond movie or Quentin Tarantino movie (QT's violence is always much more complex and nuanced, in fact) or if we're in a revenge movie starring Liam Neeson or Jason Statham. Revenge for the sake of itself. Bloodshed for pleasure. Fine. But Sicario pretends to be something else. It purports to be some kind of serious movie about border crime and the realities of life in Ciudad Juárez. That, however, is simply the thin veneer laid over what is essentially a shoot-em-up assassin movie. Sicario is about illegal substances being transported into the U.S. and daily terrorism in Juárez the way that Bad Boys II is about the connections between Russian gangsters and megalomaniac Cuban drug lords.

With the exception of Brolin's phoned-in performance the acting is solid. It's always good to see jobbing actors like Jon Bernthal and Maximiliano Hernández (both particularly good) getting work. And Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Bernardo P. Saracino, and Lora Martinez-Cunningham are all solid in good roles.

Roger Deakins shot Sicario – he was nominated for an Oscar for Villeneuve's Prisoners – and Sicario is very big on being beautiful to look at. There is even an extended sequence shot as black-and-white night-vision. I was bored with all of this, but it wouldn't surprise me if this pleased other audience members. For me, this first-person-shooter video-game look only makes the film's pleasure at sending bullets into the nameless, worthless bodies of Mexican "criminals" all the more apparent. This film is not about educating us about border crime. It is not even about presenting us with the problem. It is about killing people without consequence and enjoying it.